“The Manchurian Candidate is a classic example of the old adage – you are no better than your material. Richard Condon wrote a great book. Everything that critics praise in the film is in that book – the dream sequence, the scene in the train, the character of Raymond’s mother and so much more. In fact, there were three or four scenes from Condon’s book that we were unable to put in the film…something I have always regretted. But George Axelrod wrote a marvelous screenplay which I followed faithfully. The actors were wonderful. The cameraman, Lionel Lindon, was the finest I have ever worked with…in short, The Manchurian Candidate was one of those experiences where everything went right!”
- John Frankenheimer
Undeniably, the most prophetic movie of its generation, and perennially revealing to each that has followed it, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) has since entered the annals as American folklore: a much contested, if irrefutable oracle of the times, inadvertently marking the beginning of that quagmire, today considered ‘modern-era politics’. Within months of The Manchurian Candidate’s release, President John Kennedy’s assassination in Dealey Plaza recreated, with eerie verisimilitude, the elemental paranoia suffusing the picture’s plot and its penultimate resolution; a political murder for hire, reluctantly perpetrated by a reformed Raymond Shaw (the spectacularly steely, Lawrence Harvey). Immediately following the Presidential assassination Frank Sinatra, The Manchurian Candidate’s most ardent supporter and participant (in fact, the entire reason Frankenheimer was able to get his movie off the ground in the first place) used his sway to have the picture pulled from circulation out of respect for the grieving Kennedy family; perhaps, also, to save face as a close friend to this omnipotent American dynasty, allowing the nation to heel from its bewildering sorrow and disbelief. In some ways, America never has entirely recovered from Nov. 22, 1963; The Manchurian Candidate’s resurgence as a bona fide classic since, typifying, as well as tapping into our perennial fascination with conspiracy theories; the movie’s artistic clairvoyance even more incredibly disturbing for its foreshadowing of our present age of cynical incredulity. Of course, Frankenheimer – then - had absolutely no idea he was making a cultural touchstone about to create its own seismic shift in American cinema by rewriting the history of a nation.
The Manchurian Candidate is hardly a subtle picture, and yet there are great subtleties scattered throughout its tautly scripted narrative precipices; beginning with Frankenheimer’s ingeniously worked out 360 pan from the ostensibly innocuous ‘ladies auxiliary’ attending a hotel lecture of their horticultural society, suddenly – and quite unexpectedly mutating into a demonstration exercise hosted by the leering Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), to illustrate for a delegation of his Communist party cohorts the malleability of a brainwashed – and very ‘dry-cleaned’ mind. Lo orders an unknowing Raymond Shaw to casually murder two of the ‘lesser’ men in his kidnapped battalion. Without fail, or even in reconsideration of his actions, Shaw shoots Private Bobby Lembeck (Tom Lowell) through the forehead; then, coolly strangles Private Ed Mavole (Richard LaPore) as Lo’s committee, and the rest of the men entrusted in Shaw’s care complacently observe. Alas, these reprogrammed memories begin to seep into the subconscious of two of Shaw’s surviving soldiers; Corporal Allen Melvin (James Edwards) and Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra); each, experiencing hellish nightmares, leaving them sweat-soaked and emotionally incapacitated, despite their forced predilection to consciously refer to Raymond Shaw as “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being” they have “ever known” in their lives.
Herein, we must tip our hats to ole blue eyes; Sinatra, giving one of the top three greatest performances in his iconic and legendary movie career; genuine to a fault as he superbly conveys the wounded psychological complexities of an almost fatally stricken soul-searcher, steadily retracing – nee, unravelling – and eventually smashing through the artificially created mental barriers and roadblocks; his tortured desire, to reconcile what he instinctually knows to be true with the myths imbedded into his formalized thoughts. This allow Marco to piece together the planned political assassination, though not before Shaw has publicly executed both his menacing mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and her cardboard capitalist crony, Sen. John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory, so transparently a knock-off of Washington ‘witch-hunter’, Sen. Joseph McCarthy). Shaw then takes his own life with Marco as his witness. What might have played before the Kennedy assassination as fictionalized – even operatic – grand tragedy with ancient Greek and Shakespearean overtones imbedded in the George Axelrod screenplay, instead seems to bear forth the undeniable grey-shadings of a Lee Harvey Oswald and/or Jack Ruby in retrospect; men, not unlike our Raymond Shaw, of manipulated conscience, planted with meticulous precision by unseen and subversive forces where they can do the most harm.
Real history is a murky water, stirred with a fateful stick by idle and conspiring hands. By contrast, The Manchurian Candidate was a meticulous – almost telescopically focused – stream of consciousness, invested with a spark of fitful and electric brilliance by John Frankenheimer who, upon securing Sinatra’s services (the linchpin, giving him the keys to the kingdom to make his movie) also had to grapple with Sinatra’s ‘Chairman of the Board’ attitude and open refusal to do more than one take on any scene. Somehow, Frankenheimer managed to work around – as well as ‘with’ – his star; their creative détente resulting in some tenuous, though never entirely strained to the breaking point, moments of artistic differences. “Sinatra was always better on the first take,” Frankenheimer later admitted; a stumbling block when it came to shooting the pivotal scene where Marco confronts Shaw with a deck of cards after already having figured out how an innocuous game of solitaire holds the key to de-bugging Raymond Shaw’s programmed protocol. Frankenheimer and Sinatra did only one take of this pivotal sequence; each convinced they had the best possible performance already in the can. Regrettably, cinematographer, Lionel Lindon’s viewfinder was slightly out of focus; Frankenheimer reluctantly showing Sinatra the hazy footage and both men agreeing to go back and reshoot the scene from scratch the next day. Alas, neither was satisfied with the various attempts made on day #2. By some estimates, Sinatra did up to ten takes in his ambitiousness to recapture the magic of his primary effort. Exacerbated by his inability to live up to these expectations, Frankenheimer agreed to use the first, slightly out of focus, footage in the final release print; mildly amused when various critics championed this sequence as a streak of absolute genius; Frankenheimer apparently going out on a limb to show the audience Shaw’s hazy POV of Marco.
In Condon’s novel, Marco knows Shaw’s mother is his American operative; an incestuous puppet master, tugging on the strings. Using his stacked deck of cards, Marco reprograms Shaw to murder Eleanor instead, thus, not only foiling her planned assassination of the only viable presidential candidate to beat her husband, but also taking out one of the top-tiered executives in the subversive communist organization responsible for all their suffrage. Owing to the stringencies of the production code, Frankenheimer was barred from using this elemental plot point in the movie; together with Axelrod, ironing out the kinks to have Marco discover Eleanor behind the scheme only moments after he has already engaged Shaw in his fixed game of solitaire; then, nobly freeing Shaw of any such duty to commit this unspeakable act. It is therefore Shaw who kills Eleanor and her husband, exorcising a lifetime of pent-up animosity roiling against his own morally ambiguous, rigid and manipulative upbringing; rage, boiling over into abject venom after having just realized the implanted mental conditioning that caused him to murder at least five innocent people (including his former boss, newspaper magnet, Holborn Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan), his own beloved new bride, Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish) and her father, Senator Thomas Jordan - John McGiver, who has always reminded me of a wounded budgie), was mostly – if not all – Eleanor’s doing.
Initially, Frankenheimer approached both Sinatra and co-star, Angela Lansbury with a copy of Richard Condon’s dark political thriller. Having just finished working with Frankenheimer on All Fall Down (1962), Lansbury recalls how determined he was to get her for the part, marching up and slamming down a copy of Condon’s novel on the desk, declaring “Here is your next project.” “His enthusiasm was so infectious,” Lansbury would later recall, “I read it and just thought, if John thinks I can do this, I’m going to do it…and so very lucky that I did.” It is difficult to imagine what Frankenheimer saw in Lansbury, either as a performer or woman, that would have made her ideal casting for the malevolent and perverse, Eleanor Shaw Iselin. While Lansbury had played saucy tarts with superior conviction all the way back to her first picture, Gaslight (1944) and would continue to appear in roles requiring a strong, unapologetically enterprising female presence (the prostitute, Em, in The Harvey Girls 1946, or the morally ambiguous newspaper maven, Kay Thorndyke in State of the Union, 1948, merely two examples, immediately coming to mind) she had never before given herself so completely to embody a truly vial and remorseless creature.
Eleanor Shaw Iselin is about as morally repugnant as rich barracudas get; Lansbury loosely basing her portrait on the various Washington socialites she met while doing research for this characterization. A matriarch in name only, Eleanor engages in the brutal emasculation of her ineffectual second husband, orchestrates the assassination of his political rival, and, manages as incestuous relationship with her own adult son. For sheer disgust, there was nothing to match the now infamous kiss on the lips Lansbury’s curt maven initiates on her mentally paralytic offspring, simultaneously controlling his thoughts as she dominates him physically. Two things make this moment insidiously delicious; Lansbury’s whispered – even affectionate – plotting of the final coup, even as she promises Raymond to grind all those responsible for his brainwashing into the dust, and, Lawrence Harvey’s minimalist conveyance of complete powerlessness. Despite Shaw’s implacable contempt for humanity in general and women in particular, we can sincerely feel for him, particularly in this moment of complete psychological and physical surrender, because of Harvey’s subtly panged performance; Shaw’s inability to refuse any request made of him after having heard the tag line: “Raymond, why don’t you pass the time by playing a little bit of solitaire?” revealed in edgy facial tics, and lost, far away, glazed over stares; earlier illustrated only from a distance as Shaw suddenly discovers himself submersed up to his chest in the icy waters of a half-frozen Central Park lake after having misinterpreted the casual banter of a barkeep as an official directive from one of his communist handlers.
Interestingly, Condon – a writer of satire – considered The Manchurian Candidate as pure satire. We must, if at all possible, to first reconsider the political climate of the United States prior to the Kennedy assassination. Indeed, only four sitting presidents had been murdered while in office, the last – William McKinley, all the way back in 1901 by Polish anarchist and steel worker, Leon Czolgosz. McKinley’s assassination directly resulted in the passage of legislation by Congress, charging the Secret Service with protection of the Commander and Chief. While not immune to further attempts made on the lives of standing presidents and presidential hopefuls this newly instated military presence nevertheless proved a formidable safeguard to the office of the President and also an obvious deterrent to would-be assassins. By the time Condon published The Manchurian Candidate political assassination must have seemed as unlikely a thing of the past as scurvy. In hindsight, which is always 20/20, Frankenheimer’s approach to Condon’s material was subconsciously more direct; together with cinematographer, Lionel Lindon, applying a faux documentary style that, only in retrospect, would take on a more piquant and onerous reflection of the pervading winds of uncertainty soon to infect the political pantheon; the 1960’s quick to become the antithesis of Kennedy’s golden promise for a pax Americana.
The Manchurian Candidate opens with a prologue set in 1952 at the height of the Korean War; Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, collecting his troops from an Asian brothel for an overnight military assault. This becomes an ambush when their guide, Chunjin (Henry Silva) betrays the outfit; Shaw and his men knocked unconscious and quickly taken by helicopter transport to Manchuria. Immediately following the main titles, we learn Shaw is to be awarded the Medal of Honor for rare bravery upon the recommendation of his platoon’s commander, Capt. Bennett Marco. What neither realizes just yet is they, along with all but two of the remaining battalion, have become victims of an insidious brainwashing perpetuated by Dr. Yen Lo. Nightly, Marco and fellow officer, Cpl. Allen Melvin are plagued by reoccurring nightmares; visions of their own idly sitting by as Shaw casually murders fellow soldiers, Ed Mavole and Bobby Lembeck at Lo’s behest to illustrate the capacity of Shaw’s systematic reconditioning. With his wife’s encouragement, Melvin writes Shaw to inquire if he has been having similar nightmares. This correspondence is virtually ignored by Shaw.
Meanwhile, Shaw’s arrival on U.S. soil is met with ticker-tape parade, thanks to his enterprising mother, Eleanor, who wastes no time exploiting sonny boy’s status as a war hero to suit the campaign ambitions of her second husband, Sen. Iselin. Raymond is repulsed by this garish display, almost immediately distancing himself from his mother’s influence by accepting a job for New York Times editor, Holborn Gaines, who is vehemently opposed to Iselin’s grandstanding. Most recently, Iselin has been seen in his McCarthy-esque demagoguery, railing against the Secretary of Defense (Barry Kelley) during a televised conference; declaring the Secretary has prior knowledge of at least two-hundred and seventy known card-carrying members of the communist party presently working for U.S. State Department. Or is it a hundred and twenty? Having fabricated the entire allegation, Iselin is never entirely certain how many Communists are afflicting the American system of government. Marco, who has been recently appointed in charge of the Secretary’s PR, is powerless to stave off the ravenous inquests that follows Isley’s outburst. A short while later, Marco’s superior, Colonel Milt (Douglas Henderson) relieves him of this assignment, ordering an immediate respite as a precondition to staving off an early and forced retirement. Marco confides there is something rotten about Shaw’s Medal of Honor. While publicly, Marco cannot resist referring to Shaw as “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being” he has ever known, he equally confesses to knowing this statement to be untrue; Shaw, an aloof, dreary and unsympathetic loner, utterly lacking in compassion for his fellow man.
Nevertheless, Marco takes Milt’s advice; suffering another bout of crippling anxiety while aboard an eastbound train; his imminent nervous breakdown delayed by a brief encounter with empathetic, Eugenie Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh). Rose shares something of her past, including her engagement plans, with Marco; ‘small talk’ that leads to bigger things for both later on. Only a short while later, Rose breaks off her engagement and moves in with Marco, guiding him through a labyrinth of past regressions until, at last, he is able to tap into a better understanding of what was done to him back in Manchuria. Returning to Washington with renewed vigor, Marco gets Milt to show him a dossier on known figures in the communist organization, easily identifying several at a glance, including Yen Lo. Learning of Allen Melvin’s letter to Shaw, Marco has Melvin called in for questioning; Melvin independently picking out the same faces from the dossier, causing Milt to take notice of these unrehearsed similarities.
Marco and Chunjin inadvertently cross paths when Marco makes an impromptu visit to Shaw’s apartment, discovering Chunjin presently working there as Shaw’s man servant, but actually assigned by Lo to keep a watchful eye on Raymond’s renewed conditioning. Marco and Chunjin engage in a hellacious karate fight that effectively puts Chunjin in the hospital. The actual fight, staged with a stuntman’s precision, but rarely using doubles, caused Sinatra to break his finger during a karate punch. Indeed, Marco’s suspicions are confirmed; Shaw has been abducted by Lo under the pretext of having been struck by an automobile; presently said to be convalescing at a retirement facility, but actually enduring more ‘conditioning’ in this clinic managed by communist crony, Comrade Zilkov (Albert Paulsen). Zilkov demands Shaw murder someone on Lo’s orders to prove his absence of nearly two years since the Korea abduction has not undone all their hard work. Lo reluctantly agrees. Shaw is let loose to kill his boss, Holborn Gaines, in the dead of night. The murder unsolved, Marco is nevertheless thoroughly convinced Shaw has committed this crime. He is, however, not entirely certain of Raymond’s guilt. Indeed, part of Shaw’s reprogramming has managed to expunge guilt from the equation by creating a complete absence of acknowledgement after the fact as one of the mental triggers switching on and off again in Shaw’s psyche after the game of solitaire has been invoked.
Shaw enjoys a temporary retreat to the country where he meets and almost immediately falls in love with Jocelyn Jordan, the daughter of Sen. Thomas Jordan. She nurses him from a poisonous snake bite and for the briefest wrinkle in time, Shaw finds unobstructed serenity with Jocelyn and her father, whom he comes to greatly admire, not the least for his opposition to Iselin’s bid for the White House. Buoyed by the euphoria of their burgeoning romance, Jocelyn and Raymond are married on the sly, confounding Eleanor, who is jealously opposed to this love match. Believing he has struck a blow for his own independence, Raymond returns to New York with the good news. Marco’s happiness is bittersweet. For he is certain Shaw is quite unaware he is an assassin; Marco, pulling Jocelyn aside and imploring her to get Raymond to turn himself in, or at the very least, be subjected to medical testing before he can do any further harm. Instead, Jocelyn naively pleads with Marco not to press the point. He gives her forty-eight hours to use her influence to convince Raymond he must surrender himself to the authorities. Now, Eleanor invokes the game of solitaire, ordering Shaw to quietly go to Jordan’s townhouse and murder him with a silenced pistol. Unhappy chance Jocelyn is at home too, Shaw’s self-preservation conditioning kicks in. He murders his new bride without even flinching, quietly departing the scene without even aware of the crimes he has only just committed.
Regarding the ever-rising body count in The Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer cleverly elects to offset the violence with stylized representations of the murders in place of the more graphically staged killings of Lembeck and Mavole. Indeed, we never see Shaw murder Holborn Gaines; the crime obstructed by Frankenheimer reframing the action with Shaw’s back to the camera, entirely filling the frame moments before we fade to black. For the Jordans’ murders, Frankenheimer comes up with an even more artful and effective representation; the scene photographed almost entirely from a low angle and the POV of Raymond’s silenced pistol clutched in his hand, the bullet piercing through a carton of milk grasped in Jordan’s hand; its white gusher a substitute for the lethal and bloody wound itself. Jocelyn’s fatal shot is inflicted from a considerable distance away from the camera and, again, at a low angle, allowing for Shaw to casually step over her lifeless corpse, dramatically splayed upon the checkered tile floor in her negligee as Thomas’ frozen stare of utter disbelief peers directly into the lens in close-up from the bottom right of the frame; the moment hauntingly played out in almost complete silence, save the subtle shuffle of Shaw’s shoes on the tile as he walks away.
The next day, Iselin feigns shock and sorrow over the brutal double homicide, fielding questions from a small army of reporters. Marco returns to the apartment he shares with Rose, carrying a copy of the Times with the screaming headline announcing the murders. He blames himself for allowing Jocelyn to persuade him to remain silent. But now Shaw contacts Marco, already begun to realize something is terribly wrong. Earlier, Marco was stunned to quietly observe as an innocuous suggestion made by a barkeep, regarding a game of solitaire, made to another customer entirely, suddenly triggered Shaw to mechanically take a taxi and plunge himself square in the middle of a very frozen Central Park lake. As an interesting aside: this stunt was actually performed by Lawrence Harvey in the dead of a very frigid and wintery afternoon; Harvey dutifully performing while wearing a wet suit beneath his costume; a series of divers awaiting beneath the waters to ensure he would not become entirely submersed; Harvey immediately hoisted from this frigid soup and ushered into a nearby heated tent; given a change of clothes and snifter of brandy to warm his innards.
Marco learns of Shaw’s whereabouts, situated in a seedy hotel room overlooking Madison Square Gardens where he is awaiting instructions from his American operator regarding his penultimate assignment; the assassination of presidential nominee, Benjamin K. Arthur (Robert Riordan). Recognizing the card game – and particularly, the Queen of Diamonds - as triggers meant to unlocking, or rather ‘hotwire’ Shaw’s psyche, Marco stacks the deck in both their favors; with each new Queen revealed, ordering Shaw to regress into his back catalog of sins committed under acutely heightened and hypnotic duress. Marco commands Raymond to forget about the game; to forego his programmed initiatives. He further orders Raymond to be immune to any pending directives he may receive by telephone. Only moments later, the phone rings and Shaw, at last free of this nightmarish spell, nevertheless plays along with the instructions as given. He is to attend the political rally at Madison Square and assassinate his stepfather’s competition, thereby allowing Iselin to deliver a self-aggrandizing speech, expertly timed to sweep him into the White House. Believing he has avoided the inevitable, Marco leaves Raymond to his own accord while he hurries to collect Colonel Milt.
But Raymond now appears to have suffered a relapse, disguising himself as a priest and hurrying to the arena to carry out his assignment. A fascinating aside; Frankenheimer convincingly cobbled together this penultimate confrontation from stock footage of a real convention in progress; also, footage actually shot by him inside the real Madison Square Gardens and additional close-ups lensed back in Hollywood. Believing Raymond is about to kill again, Marco and Milt race about the various corridors and back stairwells in a desperate search. Too late, Marco discovers a pale light emanating from one of teh upstairs boxes with a God’s eye view of the stage. Gun shots ring out. But to everyone’s amazement, Raymond has turned his aggressions on Iselin and his mother, killing them both with expert marksmanship before turning the high-powered rifle on himself. Sometime later, Marco laments Shaw’s suicide, citing two genuine Medal of Honor recipients for their acts of selfless valor, marginalizing the fabricated lies that afforded Shaw his place among these hallowed names.
The Manchurian Candidate is one of those movies that ought to be re-screened every four years or so, right around election time, if only because it forever crystalizes, through the power of popular entertainment, the very real and perpetual threat, facing a free and democratic society, both from forces conspiring without and within. Frankenheimer’s film is a perennial, chiefly because not all that much has changed in the political arena since its time. If anything, the scenarios in Condon’s novel, ever so slightly tweaked by Axelrod to satisfy the production code, read as more clairvoyantly reticent sign posts pointing to a political landscape reeling perilously out of control. The salvation of a nation, at least, as depicted in the movie, is also its most morally ambiguous central character; Raymond Shaw – the dupe, the patsy, victim and, ostensibly, hero of the piece. Lawrence Harvey’s varied performance gives us the spectrum of these conflicted passions – an epically tragic/emotionally shut off martinet; the perfect subject to be remade as a malleable and robotic assassin, devastated in his youth by an overbearing matriarch, and utterly emasculated since by his handlers, and ultimately shattered by his own sudden realization he has murdered five individuals who neither wished him harm nor had anything except his best interests at heart.
The Manchurian Candidate was Frankenheimer’s breakout movie – considered a competent television director before its release, but a leading purveyor of documentary-styled film-making techniques soon to revolutionize the look and appeal of sixties cinema. Initially acquiring the rights with his own money, the project was brought to Frankenheimer’s attention by George Axelrod; the two initially slated to work together on Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In hindsight, it was, of course, kismet Frank Sinatra’s name should eventually become attached to this project, as Sinatra’s hobnobbing with the Kennedy clan, and his enthusiasm for Condon’s book prior to the President’s assassination, brought in the big investors as only Sinatra could; the actor’s initial desire to have Lucille Ball cast as Eleanor leaving Frankenheimer to convince his star Angela Lansbury was a better fit. In truth, such convincing boiled down to Frankenheimer setting up a private screening of All Fall Down for Sinatra, at the end, ole blue eyes concurring with Frankenheimer’s first choice, ebulliently declaring, “That’s the lady!”
By contrast, and in the shadow of Angela Lansbury’s towering performance as ‘the mother of all mothers’, the other co-starring female, amiably filled in by doe-eyed Janet Leigh, goes largely unnoticed, though hardly ignored; Leigh’ subtler Rose Cheney managing to make the most of a part otherwise easily devolved into thankless second-string support. Leigh and Sinatra have genuine and abiding chemistry in their brief moments together; flirtatiously sincere and unexpectedly imbued with an empathetic warmth and tenderness. She ‘mothers’ him, but in a very adult ‘good’ way – with forthright compassion and erotic spark of intangible attraction oft unearthed between emotionally shattered men and the stoic gals who find such epically flawed ‘fixer-uppers’ highly attractive. It works because, after all, we are talking about Sinatra here; an infallible survivor of his own roller coaster-ing career and with as many battle scars from Hollywood’s golden age to prove his mettle as well as his Teflon-coated durability. Upon its debut, The Manchurian Candidate polarized the critics; some citing it as the most influential and suspenseful political thriller ever made, while others eagerly pounced on its seemingly fanciful machinations as pure poison, “…the most vicious attempt yet made to cash in on Soviet-American (Cold War) tensions.” Today, it remains a prescient and powerful piece of American cinema. They don’t make movies like this anymore, as director, Jonathan Demme’s woefully subpar 2004 remake begrudgingly attests.
Okay, now for the really good news: Criterion’s new Blu-ray, sporting a 4K digital restoration, is irrefutably a winner. Until now, The Manchurian Candidate has only made the leap to hi-def via a somewhat careworn and problematic disc release via MGM Home Video. The elements employed for this reissue are derived from MGM’s archival elements, given renewed freshness via a new scan and clean-up of these original source materials. By contrast, the old MGM offering, as well as a competing European release via Arrow Home Video, both appear to suffer from artificially boosted contrast, resulting in deeper saturated blacks, but also minor ringing around the edges and some rather transparent digital noise. The Criterion suffers none of these shortcomings. Contrast levels on the Criterion is ‘interesting’ as the base tonality of these B&W visuals settles in a varying mid-grade, lacking the more punctuated shadow delineation of the Arrow release. So, which is closer to the original theatrical experience? Hmmmm. I lean toward the Criterion for several reasons; chiefly, because it is virtually free of the edge effects infrequently plaguing the more contrasty Arrow release; also, because the grain structure looks far more appealing, natural and infinitely more refined in motion on the Criterion, which also properly frames the image at an aspect ratio of 1.75:1, revealing more information on the bottom and to the right of each frame. The Arrow marginally crops this to 1.78:1.
Criterion also retains the original PCM monaural audio, very limited and sounding a tad flat, particularly with regards to David Amram’s underscore. Still, The Manchurian Candidate is primarily driven by dialogue and a few choice action sequences. These are deftly handled with a level of sonic sophistication and clarity that sounds about right for a vintage mono audio recording. Criterion has carried over John Frankenheimer’s rather sparse audio commentary from the 1997 DVD release (also a part of MGM’s earlier Blu-ray): ditto for the 8-minute chat between Frankenheimer, George Axelrod and Sinatra; much too light on specifics and a genuine waste of this glittering ensemble. New to Criterion’s spate of supplements is an 11-minute interview with Angela Lansbury and 16-minutes of ‘puff piece’ reflection from filmmaker, Errol Morris. Arguably, the best featurette goes to historian, Susan Carruthers, who offers some harrowing insight into the Cold War brainwashing scare. At 21 minutes, this is an unsettling featurette to say the least.
I am sincerely heart-sore Criterion could not gain the rights to the nearly hour-long series: The Directors: John Frankenheimer, an intimate portrait and overview of his career and movies, produced in 2003 and included on the Arrow release. I find it rather curious two other extras produced for MGM’s Blu-ray ‘Queen of Diamonds’ and ‘A Little Solitaire’; the former an interview with Lansbury; the latter, an appreciation for the movie by director William Friedkin, were not even considered for inclusion herein. Oh well, can’t have everything, I suppose – through I would have thought it prudent of Criterion, an indie label known for its comprehensive Special Editions – to go that extra mile and find room for these archival interviews too. Bottom line: from a purely visual perspective; Criterion’s new disc is the one to run with, especially if you lack access to a region free Blu-ray player. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)